Harlan Kennedy: Retail Technology And The Limits Of Seamlessness

Harlan Kennedy: Retail Technology And The Limits Of Seamlessness

Consumers want purchase experiences that are quick and easy — but also memorable.

Harlan Kennedy
  • 28 november 2013

In the 2008 Pixar film WALL-E, the second half of the movie takes place on a giant cruise ship in space, where a passenger’s every whim is met, and the entire populace reclines in hover-loungers while waited upon by obliging robotic underlings. Ultimately and obviously, the message of WALL-E is that this is not humankind’s natural state, but you could be forgiven for thinking this from many recent developments in our lives.

Over the last 10 years, there has been a trend in design – specifically in retail – that is mirrored by the business world’s push for efficiencies in manufacturing and supply-chain management. That trend is this: faster is better. Easier is better. The predominant brief has been: “How do we remove steps? How do we make it easier for consumers to consume?”

It is certainly true that the winners in retail over the last few years have been the companies that have offered their customers easy, seamless interactions. Amazon created ‘one-click,’ and then successfully defended a challenge in court from Barnes & Noble, which was forced, as part of the ruling, to add another step to its purchase process. Amazon has gone on to create same-day delivery and Amazon Prime, a collection of features that makes shopping at Amazon feel easier, smarter, and friction-free. The result: millions of happy customers, of which I am one.

modern family shopping

The future of retail points to even more streamlined ways to shop and buy. One-click has already found its way off our desktops and laptops, onto our phones, and out into the real world. Go into any store and many customers are ‘one-clicking’ their way through racks of merchandise, trying on clothes, doing price comparisons, and buying through their phones then and there. And now, with same-day delivery, online retailers like Amazon and eBay may have it at your door by the time you get home. Very shortly we’ll all be one-click shopping shows: What’s Sofia Vergara wearing on “Modern Family?” I’ll use Shazam to record the audio-tag of the show and pull up the designer, the price, and where I can buy that dress. (Ahem, for my wife.)

So what’s wrong with that, you ask? Nothing! It’s kind of amazing. We’re living in the future! (Where’s my hover-lounger?) But here’s the thing: humans crave experiences. We want stories, and sometimes we may even want to work for it. We’ve all heard a friend gleefully recount how they followed a trail of bread crumbs down a blind alley in the West Village, gave the secret password on the third Tuesday of the month, and were thus able to obtain access to an exclusive trunk show of silk scarves created by albino silkworms and dyed according to ancient practices. After reviewing the options, our friend opted to place an order, waiting three months for a custom-selected shade of vermillion.

This is the opposite of seamless, and it’s likely that scarf is one of the most valued possessions our friend owns. We used to pay more for easy and convenient. Why is it that, now, we often pay more for difficult? Is friction still friction when it’s valued?

It’s easy to point to handcrafted, artisanal things and experiences that cost more. We expect that. But where this really starts to get interesting is where we can start to use technology and design to create this ‘desired friction’ – we’ll call it ‘stickiness.’ When technology can really start to augment the experience in surprising and interesting ways, not just streamline it, then we’ll know we are entering a realm of new possibilities.

pin pack go four seasons

Here are three companies that are using technology to create a deeper, stickier experience, rather than one that’s just easier:

The Four Seasons is encouraging guests to plan their visits using Pinterest. Based on guests’ interests, the hotel will build a Pinterest board of suggested activities and destinations, co-creating a completely personalized visual itinerary.

Perch Interactive uses projected light and motion sensors to create interactive product displays on tabletop counters in stores. The result is an experience that blends the tactile physicality of the real world with the depth of information we are used to online – in-store augmented reality.

Chefs Feed is an app that creates a curated experience for foodies. Users log in to find local dishes – not just restaurants – that have been recommended by their favorite chefs. Open Table made reservations easier, and Yelp gave us the wisdom of crowds, but knowing what the insiders know will always feel more special than just finding what’s good and close.

Why must surprise die on the altar of seamlessness? How can your company use technology not just to make buying your products easier, but to create a story? Sometimes faster isn’t better. In a world of seamless transactions and one-clicking, put some thought to how your brand can use technology to give someone a story – one they’re likely to share.

Harlan Kennedy has spent 18 years as a strategist and specializes in positioning, new product development and brand strategy across a range of clients and categories. Currently, he heads up strategic efforts at vbporange, a customer experience consultancy housed within independent San Francisco advertising agency Venables Bell & Partners. Orange clients include Audi, Phillips 66, Barclays, Stanford Media X, the March of Dimes and ZER01.


Images: Sick Chirpse, Rock Paper Watch and


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